The Labour Party and the NHS are in crisis. But they can save each other

For Labour to win the next election, their new leader needs a formidable NHS campaigning strategy from day one. Here’s how they do it.

The NHS was one of the defining issues of the general election. As a doctor, I see the impact political decisions have on our health service on a daily basis –  so I was glad to see all parties scrutinised on their proposals. 

On the whole, Labour did well at holding the Conservative Party to account on its abysmal record and they advanced bold, important policies such as free personal care for the over 65s, something that has been available in Scotland since 2002.

But ultimately, this wasn’t enough to prevent a catastrophic loss for Labour. Soon, the party will have a new leader. Whoever wins cannot afford to underestimate just how important an effective NHS campaigning strategy will be to their chances of winning in 2024.

For Labour to stand any chance of forming a government, it will need to win back virtually all of the former ‘Red Wall’ seats that fell to the Tories in December. That is no easy feat. Yes, Brexit and perceptions of the current leadership may well have made this outcome inevitable, but it is not enough to rely on the absence of these factors at the next election.

Whilst Labour did well on the NHS, their strategy was not perfect. Too late in the day did they focus heavily on the devastating impact of Tory cutbacks. The now infamous photo of 4-year-old Jack Williment-Barr lying on the floor of Leeds General’s A&E department was an impetus for this noticeable shift in the final days of the campaign.

This is not to trivialise the importance of issues like the possibility of a Trump trade deal with the NHS on the table. They are important and they will continue to be important in the period of uncertainty that will define post-Brexit Britain. But ultimately this was an issue too detached from people’s daily lives and too intertwined in an already controversial stance on Brexit.

To win back voters, Labour needs an NHS campaigning strategy that is unrelenting in holding the Tories to account on their record, that puts local NHS issues at the heart of its regional campaigning, and that addresses the issues affecting voters’ everyday lives. 

Of the 20 Labour leave seats projected as most likely to go Tory, only Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford stayed red, despite her being a staunch Remainer. Cooper’s anomalous success might be explained in part by the fact a deliberate decision was made early on to put local NHS issues, like the closure of Pontefract’s maternity unit, at the heart of her campaign.

During their election, the Conservatives announced a suite of NHS policies: ‘record’ funding for the NHS, 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses and 6000 more GPs. Few who have worked in the NHS during the last ten years believe any of it. Remember when Jeremy Hunt promised 5,000 more GPs? He delivered 162.

Labour needs to do much more to effectively hold the Conservatives to account on their abysmal past record on the NHS, while also dissecting ongoing performance with razor-like precision and vivid clarity. Image after image like Jack Williment-Barr’s need to be etched into voters’ minds. I have seen enough elderly people waiting on trollies in A&E to know occurrences like this are real and not a one-off. But acting solely as the tribune of Tory failure does not make Labour the party of the NHS. And it won’t win elections.

Labour’s incoming leader instead needs to describe a compelling alternative vision of the NHS and social care, and a believable route towards it within their first parliament. It is achievable to have world class cancer care in the NHS without crippling delays for treatment. It is achievable to have a social care system that doesn’t just free our elderly loved ones from the fear of dying in destitution, but instead provides them with a truly exceptional quality of life, right until its natural end.

This vision must be ingrained into voters’ minds from the get-go. And crucially, whether they see it as realistic or not will depend entirely on the ability of a new leader to take on Labour’s fiscal credibility issue once and for all.

But so far, the NHS and social care have made little more than cameo appearances in the leadership campaign. These issues were never going to offer obvious opportunities to stand out from the crowd; if there’s one thing Labour members – and indeed most of the public- are united on, it’s a desire to see a well-funded health service that is free at the point of use. 

Yes, the four remaining candidates have all signed up to We Own It’s pledge “to end NHS privatisation and reinstate the NHS on the basis of its founding principles”, but there has been little imagination beyond this. There are still six weeks left in a contest that already seems to have lasted for a lifetime and there is huge untapped potential to be seen as the candidate with bold and exciting plans to deliver a world class health and social care system. 

Polling this month from Lord Ashcroft shows that issues like the NHS and social care have the power to influence people’s decisions at the ballot box – 63% of people who voted Labour did so because of the NHS.

The next leader of the Labour Party cannot afford to forget that. If they want to defy the unfavourable odds and become Prime Minister in 2024, they need a formidable NHS campaigning strategy from day one.

Tom Gardiner is a doctor and sits on the Executive Committee of the Fabian Society.

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